Actor Bill Bixby helped define television for four decades. He also bore numerous personal hardships with grace and dignity.
Actor Bill Bixby helped define television for four decades, becoming one of the medium’s most recognizable faces. He was a leading man in three popular series – “My Favorite Martian,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” and “The Incredible Hulk.” He was also active behind the scenes as a director and producer, directing more than 30 episodes of the sitcom “Blossom” in the 1990s, among other shows.
Something passing fans may not know is that Bixby bore numerous personal hardships with grace and dignity. His strength was so inspiring that actor Hugh Jackman once talked of doing a Bixby biopic.
Bixby, who died Nov. 21, 1993 at age 59, lost his only child to a curable throat infection when the boy was only 6. A year later, Bixby’s former wife – the child’s mother – killed herself.
Bixby waged a public battle with prostate cancer that began in 1991 and ended with his death in November 1993.
In an “Entertainment Tonight” interview that can still be seen on YouTube, Bixby vowed to fight until the end. “Some people who have been told they have cancer quit,” he said. “When the c-word hits their mind, they simply stop, they cease to live and give themselves to dying. That’s not my intention. You come and get me, and you drag me away, but I’m not going to contribute to my own death.”
When asked about his legacy, Bixby said, “I would hope that I have left behind something that would leave good will. And then my life would have been worth something.”
Bixby was a nice guy, known to personally deliver autographed pictures to children who had written him, the Los Angeles Times noted in his obituary. He wasn’t a “Hollywood type,” once saying that he didn’t go to parties because he struggled at social events. People wanted to talk to him as one of the television characters he played, not as a person, he said. “I’ve come to accept that,” he was quoted as saying. “I used to hope that someone would want to talk to me, to Bill, but I’ve learned it won’t happen.”
In March 1981, Bixby’s 6-year-old son, Christopher, contracted a throat infection while on a ski vacation. He died at a local hospital. His mother, actress Brenda Benet, was devastated. She died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound about a year later.
In a 1990 interview with the Scripps Howard News Service, Bixby talked about his only child’s death, and how the strong emotions it triggered were similar to those that transformed Dr. David Banner into the Incredible Hulk:
“My son suffocated while the doctor inside was literally removing a splinter from the finger of another doctor … I have the pain buried in me. It was rage for the first two years, and this having happened as casually and carelessly as it did. I was almost vengeance-seeking.
“But I came to realize you have to move on with life. Now I have anger over it, but not hatred. It’s really hard to let that feeling go. I also have remorse over the long hours I was working at the time.”
Bixby’s work, particularly on “Hulk,” could get physical. He told Scripps Howard that he’d broken ribs and fingers and had no cartilage remaining in his left knee. “In my next show, I want to drive a nice car and wear nice clothes,” he said.
A year later, Bixby was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After surgery to remove his prostate, he went into remission briefly only to learn that cancer had spread.
While undergoing various treatments, Bixby kept working, directing “Blossom.” According to the Daily Kos, series star Mayim Bialik said Bixby would often direct from a reclining position, because it was too painful for him to stand up. But “he’s talking to everybody – the grips, the props people,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Bixby told “Entertainment Tonight” that he didn’t think of himself as a brave man. Rather, he spoke of other cancer patients he’d met and their strength and the joy they took in life.
The final words he said to the camera were these: “Be good to yourselves, because if you’re good to yourselves, you’re going to be kind to everybody else. I’d sure like to see that before I die.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”